I’ve been thinking a lot about grief, trauma, and loss lately. Friends and close clients have been experiencing the death of loved ones or being presented with challenging life situations at a rate that seems higher than normal – unusual even. And so it has me contemplating something that one of my best friends said recently in response to the death of one of her close family members – maybe as we get older this just becomes normal.
So maybe we should start teaching ourselves to be better at it.
Learning how to be supportive, understanding, and effective friends and family members to those going through difficult times seems more important than ever. And with all the literal guidebooks out there to help us cope with loss, experience grief and depression, and help others in need, you’d think we would have improved by now. But I’m noticing that we haven’t. And from my own experience, I can say that most of us fail miserably at trying to be supportive – but not for lack of caring. Mostly it’s from lack of understanding and an overall feeling of helplessness. Most of us find the talk of death or trauma uncomfortable at a minimum, and so it goes undiscussed and becomes invisible. And with it, so do the people experiencing it. The world keeps turning even though your world closes in. And because your loved ones (and everyone else around you) are too afraid to discuss it, you’re forced to pretend that that loss, that grief, that trauma never happened. But everything is still different.
I am very aware that I am not any type of expert on loss, grief, or trauma. I’m not an expert on communicating or empathizing either – but I do talk to a lot of people. I don’t know if it’s the writer in me who is constantly compiling stories, or the critical analyzer struggling to understand as much as possible, but I compulsively ask the other question. Not just the what, or where but the why. There’s so much more to be found there, I think.
Yesterday I was in the treatment room with a client who I barely know. This happens rarely but she is the type of client that floats in a couple of times a year for an eyebrow wax, and during that twenty minutes we can only cover so much ground. She had just gotten back from a three-week-long vacation, and I asked her how it went. She said that it was great, but she was really forced to get out of her comfort zone and face some of her biggest fears. So naturally, I asked her to tell me what those fears are. She laughed and asked me if I really cared to know, and I said I’d love to know because then we could have a real conversation. And at the end of those twenty minutes we had both concluded what we’re sure we must have heard Brene Brown say somewhere:
“It’s better to just do it afraid.”
Maybe I’m being nosy. Maybe it’s none of my business. But it turns out we have a lot of the same fears, and it helps to talk about it. And it adds a level of humanity to an interaction that could otherwise skim a surface level simplicity that leaves us both the same.
Let’s apply this to loss.
I had an interaction recently with an acquaintance who had recently suffered a devastating death of a loved one. I had known the person who had passed also, but we weren’t close, and I had discovered the information via social media. When I encountered this person in public we exchanged pleasantries, but after thinking over this whole topic and how horrifying it must be to be trapped inside a mind that is suffering while having to casually respond to “How are you’s” with something like “fine, thanks.” I stopped myself and told this person how sorry I was, and how I know they’re not okay, and that’s okay. They mentioned that they weren’t sure if I knew, and thought it would be weird to bring it up. So I just said, how could this kind of situation get any worse or any weirder? And they laughed and said “I guess you’re right.”
It’s better to just do it afraid.
I thought I’d share the three most important things I’ve learned from experiencing traumatic loss myself, but also from talking with hundreds of people who all have some version of death or trauma that they can share and relate to.
#1) Don’t say nothing.
You will not make your friend, family member or co-worker “feel worse” or remind them of their loss if you offer your condolences, support, or make a gesture to let them know they’re in your thoughts. Most likely, there is no way that they could feel worse, and they are thinking about their loss or difficult situation at all times whether or not someone acknowledges it. It is literally impossible for you to “remind” them that their loved one has passed, for example. They are always painfully aware of that reality.
What can be hurtful is the isolation that we can experience when we’re going through a difficult situation and those around us do nothing, say nothing, and try to treat you like nothing happened. Or worse, ignore you all together because they feel awkward. The fear of saying the wrong thing often translates into saying nothing at all, and that can make the person who is hurting feel frustrated and alone. Just offering up a simple “I’m sorry and I’m here for you” can go a long way for someone who is suffering.
#2) Directly ask the person whether they want to talk about it or not, and then respect their answer.
One of my go-to lines in the treatment room is: “I’m here if you want to talk about it, but if you don’t then that’s completely fine too. We can talk about other things, or not at all.” Sometimes I lead with that statement; sometimes that’s a follow-up to another technique I learned from a client going through a terrible time. I ask how they’re doing today. In general, they are most-likely not doing well, but in this moment, today, they may be doing better or worse. I remember hating it when people who were aware of my loss would ask me a blanket “how are you” because I’d feel confined to answer in a socially acceptable way like “fine” when what I really wanted to say was: “Fucking terrible. How could I feel any differently?”
Some people may want to talk about it. Others may not. Some may tell you ahead of time through a non-confrontational text that they just want you to treat them like nothing has happened when they see you. Others may come through the door at work and immediately break down and tell you everything. But not everyone is that direct, or has the capacity to do those things. The point is to be brave enough to ask them what they actually want instead of saying nothing, or assuming you understand how they feel and want to be treated.
#3) Stop asking what you can do and just do something.
This, in my opinion, is the most difficult one to put into practice. What can you do for someone suffering emotionally other than be there for them? You want to make their life easier during this terrible time, but you’re not sure how, so you ask them. This seems harmless but actually then puts the heavy burden of delegating or deciding on the person who is already mentally and emotionally maxed out. So they usually respond by saying they don’t need anything. Which isn’t usually true.
Depending on the type of relationship you have with this person, the type of “help” will vary. But decide on something and just do it. Say, “I’m coming over with dinner. If you want me to stay and talk, great. If not, that’s great too. I just want you to have some food.” Say, “I know you’re going to be out of town a lot with family in the next couple of weeks. I’d be happy to watch your pets while you’re gone.” Come over and take their dogs on a walk. Babysit the kids for a few hours. Drop off some books or flowers. Sit with them. Answer their phone call.
I know that for me personally, I needed to continue going through my routine in order to keep my life somewhat together. What helped me tremendously, and what to this day I will never forget was the fact that for probably at least six months my sister never left me alone. And my best friends always answered their phones. My sister didn’t do anything in particular, but she was always there. Getting off work and having someone to sit with, and eat with, and watch movies with was very helpful, and being able to call my friends and talk in the middle of the night got me through some dark moments.
I hope that these few tools can help some of you. I understand that not everyone is the same, and some of you may disagree with my ideas. Maybe my friend was right- as we get older these things start to happen more frequently, so naturally we should get better at dealing with trauma and loss as time goes on. But instead of waiting for practice, I think we should all try to be better now.
Photo: Kimberly Ann Photography